The micromachines: from invention to globalized Swiss innovation
A retrospective of the event "You are the number one."
23 April, 2024 by
MSM - Le Mensuel de l'Industrie, Marina Hofstetter

In early February 2024, the CHIRON group organized an event to say 'thank you': thank you to its employees, its partners, and everyone who contributed to the development of the Micro5. Many testimonies followed, highlighting the history, challenges, technology, and future of the micromachine in front of a hundred attendees

The micromachine originated from a brainstorming session led by Valérie Briquez and a small group at He-Arc in 2009 around the theme: "What will the machine of the future look like?" A strong observation emerged from the discussions: machine tools tend to grow in size, while the size of the parts to be machined tends to do the opposite. Ideally, the size of the machines should be adapted to the size of the parts they are intended to manufacture. A fundamental working direction was thus established: to develop a high-speed machining machine of small size for the watchmaking sector.

Interview with Samuel Vuadens, CEO of CHIRON Swiss, and Jean-Daniel Lallemand, Sales Director of CHIRON Swiss

What are the advantages of a micromachine compared to conventional-sized machines?

J.-D. Lallemand: The Micro5 was originally developed for the watchmaking sector, an industry in which many small businesses are active. For both space and financial investment reasons, a micromachine provides an opportunity for a small company to equip itself more easily to start or expand its machining capabilities. As for larger or well-established companies, replacing a "traditional" machine with a micromachine allows for a significant space saving, reducing workshop size and associated costs, without affecting production capacity. Beyond these practical aspects, micromachines like the Micro5 offer very high surface quality of parts and a significant reduction in machining cycles. 

Are there any hesitations from companies to switch to micromachines?

J.-D. Lallemand: The world of machine tools has been governed for decades by the idea that the heavier the machine, the more stable and precise the machining will be. Therefore, the task of a salesperson trying to sell a micromachine is first to debunk this belief and then to prove to potential clients the advantages of the micromachine. In sometimes conservative industrial environments, the task can be challenging, but there are now many user testimonials confirming the benefits of these machines. In the watchmaking industry, several major groups have been testing these machines for several years and are now convinced of their capabilities. Those who venture into micromachines do not look back.

 S. Vuadens: For those who have doubts, I like to emphasize that using a large machine to manufacture a small part represents a strategic mistake, especially when considering aspects such as energy efficiency, the relationship between machine compactness and part size, as well as precision and speed of execution.

J.-D. Lallemand: I also like to give the comparison of transporting a single envelope with a 38-ton truck. If there's a genuine justification or need behind it, okay, but otherwise, it clearly makes no sense. There are also other factors to consider. Machines are easy to transport and can more easily be installed in workshops abroad because their transportation is simpler. And with smaller machines come smaller components, which can be advantageous in terms of service and handling. One person can change a spindle on a micromachine. So, there are benefits and savings at different levels.

Then the Micro5 is one of the micromachines available on the market, what sets it apart from the others?

S. Vuadens: Our advantage in terms of micromachines is the fact that we are the pioneers. Compared to other license holders provided by He-Arc, we are technologically equivalent. The machines differ in their overall design, for example, but their dynamics are the same. The big difference that puts the Micro5 in pole position is the investment that has been and continues to be made in this machine. We were the first to industrialize the production of a micromachine, and we have already sold 150 of them. So, we already have significant and growing experience. And of course, the foundation of the CHIRON group has been a springboard for the emergence of the Micro5.

What did the acquisition of Mecatis by the CHIRON Group concretely bring?

S. Vuadens: The integration of Mecatis into the CHIRON Group as CHIRON Swiss has provided access to significant financial and human resources, as well as an established sales network. As mentioned this morning, it is these three aspects that will make the difference in turning an invention into a viable and profitable innovation. I wanted to develop the Micro5 in partnership from the start, and I found the perfect opportunity with CHIRON.

You mentioned that 150 machines have already been sold. Do you have a sales forecast for 2024?

S. Vuadens: Our sales target for 2024 is set at 100 machines, and we anticipate sales growth in the following years. Indeed, since 2016, many players in the microtechnology sector have recognized the benefits of this technology and have deferred their investments, waiting for tests on the first machines to demonstrate their reliability and continuous performance, operating without interruption 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

J.-D. Lallemand: Until recently, I used to take the lead and visit potential clients to discuss their needs and advocate for micromachines. Now, it's the companies, many of which are small, that contact me for information. Clearly, attitudes are changing. Additionally, I notice that a first purchase of the Micro5 often leads relatively quickly to the purchase of one or more additional machines. Indeed, parts manufactured on the micromachine often have a better surface finish than those made on other machines, and the cycle time on the micromachine is shorter. The fact that clients themselves experience these benefits is the best selling point.

Do you offer customization of the Micro5?

S. Vuadens: Our goal is specific: we aim to maintain a machine whose configuration matches the functionalities we have established. Currently, there are about fifteen options available. However, we are open to developing new features, provided that an estimated volume of 50 machines is reached to justify the effort of maintaining and improving these new capabilities.

Where are the Micro5 machines manufactured?

S. Vuadens: The Micro5 machines are manufactured in-house, at the CHIRON Group's facilities in Tuttlingen. To produce in Switzerland, we would have needed to hire about thirty polymechanics, which is unrealistic given the current conditions. That is the main reason why production takes place in Germany, although it is also clear that working in euros for manufacturing is financially advantageous.

So, what are the activities of CHIRON Swiss?

S. Vuadens: In Switzerland, we focus on sales and services. Many customers want turnkey solutions. One out of every two machines sold is intended for the production of a specific product only. Developing the application and commissioning such a machine takes almost twice as long as simply assembling the basic machine in the factory. Additionally, we train our customers in machine operation. This trend has led us to increase our application machine development team from 10 to 30 people in two years, and we are still looking for more staff, in Valais, Yverdon, and especially in German-speaking Switzerland.

So, you are heavily affected by the labor shortage…

S. Vuadens: Yes, both in terms of applications and manufacturing. We hope that the situation in Germany will not deteriorate, but for now, it is easier to find polymechanics there than here. One of the problems we encounter in the machine tool world is the exodus of polymechanics to our customers, especially watchmaking groups, which have products that are captivating...

J.-D. Lallemand: Added to that is the fact that mechanical trades have long been looked down upon by society. Those who put on overalls to go to work did not have the same status as others. However, not just anyone can operate a machine tool. These are trades that require knowledge and proper training. Therefore, we need to revalue mechanical trades and restore their reputation among the younger generations.

What developments are being considered for the future of the Micro5?

J.-D. Lallemand: We regularly receive suggestions from our customers, who, after using the milling machine, wonder if we could develop a turning center, a screw machine, etc.

S. Vuadens: Currently, we are working on a version for the manufacturing of slightly larger parts. The size of the parts and therefore the volume allocated to machining is an important constraint that strongly influences the dynamics of the machine, and we must be careful to maintain the advantages of the micromachine, otherwise the development makes no sense. Innovation projects with He-Arc are also underway. We also want to develop the automation side of the Micro5. The strength of belonging to a group allows us to work and exchange with different partners around the globe and to benefit from the synergies offered by this constellation.

The beginnings of the micromachine

At the time, the industrial world received the idea relatively skeptically, with the preconceived notion being that a lightweight machine cannot, by definition, be precise. Nonetheless, He-Arc decided to proceed. However, it wasn't until 2013 and the launch of a research program at the HES-SO that the Micromac_Study project at He-Arc began in early 2014, funded for one year. The specifications included several points, including the requirement for a 5-axis machine for parts with a maximum volume of 50 x 50 x 50 mm, with machining precision of 1 μm and surface finish of 0.4 μm. Environmental and technical constraints such as the machine's energy consumption, frequency modes, and acceleration were also considered. Summarized in one sentence, the machine needed to be "as simple and light as possible, as powerful as necessary," as explained by Claude Jeannerat, a project member and professor at He-Arc. Indeed, for the machine to establish itself in the world of machine tools, it must provide equivalent or superior service to what is available on the market. Thus began the first challenge: thinking small. "Moving from a mindset of 'big machine' to 'small machine' thinking was not easy," confirms Valérie Briquez, also a professor at He-Arc and project member. After extensive simulation work, with an eye already toward eco-design, the theoretical results led to the fabrication of a prototype, exhibited in Locle in 2015, gradually sparking general interest.

From invention to innovation

The Micro5 is presented at SIAMS 2016 at the He-Arc booth. From that moment on, the need to define a guideline in terms of technology transfer becomes apparent. He-Arc chooses to share its development by offering interested parties the opportunity to purchase a license to develop the product. On June 9, 2016, during a presentation in Saint-Imier to find licensees, a hand is raised: Samuel Vuadens decides to take the plunge. "My idea was to create a consortium of companies for the industrial development of the Micro5, which I did, although it was not easy to find companies willing to take on the adventure. Some even withdrew from the project fairly quickly," explains Samuel Vuadens. The first 5 micromachines were therefore manufactured and sold in 2017 by this consortium. In 2018, the company Mecatis, led by Samuel Vuadens, finds itself alone with the Micro5 and sets out to find the ideal partner to continue the adventure. "I did not want to stay alone and maintain control over this development. I also did not want to go down the path of fundraising. I was looking for a partner already well-established in terms of financial resources, human resources, and sales network, to be able to push the product far and fast," details the CEO. In parallel, the presentation of the Micro5 at SIAMS 2016 sparks the keen interest of Jean-Daniel Lallemand, sales manager for the CHIRON group in Switzerland. Two years later, at the same trade show, HE-Arc Ingénierie presents convincing results from machining tests carried out on the Micro5 over the past two years, and Mecatis exhibits the first pre-series Micro5. Convinced that he is witnessing a revolution, Jean-Daniel Lallemand alerts Dr. Claus Eppler and Bernd Hilgarth, respectively CTO and CSO of the CHIRON group, leading to a significant first meeting in Isérables on December 20, 2018. Following fruitful discussions, Samuel Vuadens presents the Micro5 at the CHIRON group headquarters in Tuttlingen on April 1, 2019. Convinced of its revolutionary potential, the CHIRON management decides to acquire Mecatis, officially becoming CHIRON Swiss SA in August 2020, marking an important milestone in the group's history.

The advent of the micromachine?

The Micro5 quickly found its place there, as confirmed by Dr. Claus Eppler, CTO of the CHIRON group: "The Micro5 is our flagship in terms of sustainable development." At present, one machine is produced every three days, but a reorganization of production should increase this number. "The Micro5 is now a Swiss innovation on a global scale," says Dr. Claus Eppler. The year 2020 marks the first sale of a Micro5 outside of Switzerland, and global sales continue to increase. In addition, there is an openness in terms of applications. Although remaining a development focused on the watchmaking industry, the Micro5 is slowly making its way into other fields such as medical and electronic industries. So, a lot is happening, both internally and with industrial partners and customers: analysis of cycle time savings, analysis of burrs and surface finish, development of specific machining aid applications, etc. On the He-Arc side as well, developments based on the micromachine continue. Two examples: the development of a micro-factory for industry, and a DNA micro-factory called DNAMIC, which allows data storage in DNA proteins. With growing interest, increasing production, constant developments, new areas of applications, the future of the micromachine looks rather promising. 

MSM - Le Mensuel de l'Industrie, Marina Hofstetter 23 April, 2024